A cultured Christmas
Stories by Agnes Chung, Jenny Schweyer and Jack Taylor
Canada boasts a rapidly changing population, increased numbers of new comers to Canada and a brighter cultural mosaic than ever before. More than 200 ethnic origins were reported in Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey. One in five people in Canada are foreign born. Our diversity shines brightly, especially at Christmas, when folks celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ in contexts that are most meaningful to them, and remember the way their families and ancestors celebrated in their countries of origin. The Light Magazine is delighted to continue our tradition of “A Cultured Christmas”. A few of our wonderful writers share the stories and memories of a diverse handful of folks’ Christmas celebrations from cultures far and wide. And what is the common thread in these celebrations? The Birth of Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. Merry Christmas, dear readers.
Glorious Birth in Lebanon
There is nothing like a nativity scene in Beirut to ease the tensions among the 18 sects divided by historical and religious differences. Two weeks before Christmas, damp cotton wool provides the moisture for sprouted beans, chickpeas, broad beans, lentils, oats and wheat to grow. The six-inch plants are used to fill in the cracks of the cave-like manger, which is the central focus of the holiday season.
While western practices with Papa Noel, lighted trees, poinsettias, holly and gift giving have also found their way into the Lebanese celebration, there are still many more home grown traditions. Lebanese businessman Joe Oudaimy says “praying and sharing the Christmas story with the children is the most important thing” for his family. “We have angels and lights on our tree but not toys.” Groups of family members will go house-to-house singing carols, and hospitality is extended to everyone. Oudaimy loves to ensure a large spread of food is available to visitors.
Some celebrate Christmas with the dabkeh dance (where colourfully dressed men and women join hands in a circle and stomp their feet to their heartland music played on the Darbouka, a percussion instrument). Most feast, with family and loved ones, on Kebbeh pie (minced meat, burghul, warm yogurt sauce) or chicken garnished with special rice, hummus, tahini salad, and lamb rotis. The spirit of the season is infectious.
On Christmas Day Lebanese gather for a lunch featuring coffee, sugared nuts, dates and mezze plates. All those around the table will join hands and chant a Christmas prayer of thanks to the Lord. Boiled wheat called Kubbeh or a mix of spiced meat called burghul are part of this noonday meal.
The birth of Jesus is the focus of celebrations, with Midnight Mass being a big event. Other evenings might be spent around a bonfire, telling ancient family stories, and remembering the purpose of the holiday. “We listen for the bells ringing in the churches,” says Oudaimy.
In Arabic, Oudaimy shares his greeting, “Eid Milad Majid” (Glorious Birth). The reply is “kul am wa enta bi-khair” (Prayers for your good health in the new year).
Mountain Nativity in Peru
Peruvian Christmas festivities are heavily imbued with Spanish influence dating back to the mid-1500s. In Peru, over 95 per cent of the people are Christians, according to Operation World. Roman Catholicism is the country’s official religion.
High up in the Peruvian Andes, the nativity scenes (nacimientos) feature alpacas and llamas kneeling beside the manger where baby Jesus lays, snuggled in vibrant handwoven textiles. Introduced by the Spanish, the manger scenes assume different cultural characteristics depending on the region. The Jesuits used it as an evangelism tool. The building and display of nacimiento has since become a Peruvian Christmas tradition.
Peruvian traditions don’t associate with Santa Claus and the Christmas tree. “In 1972, Peru banned Santa Claus from the nation’s radio and television because he was alleged to be an anti-Christian myth and part of a merchants’ conspiracy that reflected Peru’s shameful cultural dependency on foreign customs,” wrote Manitoba university professor, Dr. Gerry Bowler in his book, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas.
The season’s climax is Christmas Eve (Noche Buena). “Normally we have a family Christmas dinner, then, attend midnight mass where communion is served. As children, we couldn’t wait to return home after mass, because we got to enjoy hot chocolate with sweet bread (paneton), and receive our gifts. I remember Christmas night was a hot night,” remembers Dr. John Chang, who operates his family’s organic blueberry farm in Richmond.
In the Southern hemisphere, summer starts on December 21st. Authentic Peruvian hot chocolate is made with locally grown cocoa, sweetened milk and flavoured with spices like cinnamon and cloves. In the Andean mountains, Christmas festivities continue until the arrival of the three wise kings on the feast of Epiphany, January 6.
Ho ho ho! An American Christmas
It is impossible to talk about American Christmas without mentioning Thanksgiving, which occurs on the fourth Thursday of every November, because it is the start of the American Christmas season. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which takes place annually in New York, New York, is a cultural icon, watched by some 50 million TV viewers and three million more in-person. The parade always ends with Santa Claus riding on his sleigh-float, signifying the start of Christmas celebrations. The day after Thanksgiving, “Black Friday” is viewed as the kick-off to holiday shopping.
Santa Claus is one of the United States’ most significant cultural contributions to the contemporary notion of St. Nicholas. The evolution of this historical figure into Santa Claus can be attributed, in part, to the early flood of European immigrants to the US who brought with them stories of benevolent figures associated with Christmas time and giving. Thanks to this, as well as influential early-1800’s American literary works, (including the much-loved poem, “’Twas The Night Before Christmas”) Santa Claus was launched into popular culture.
Immigrants brought other traditions as well, including the Christmas tree and popcorn garlands (the only kind of Christmas decoration most people could afford during war times and the Great Depression). The Christmas tree was adapted from the pagan mid-winter celebration of Yule, which originated in Germany. It was an effort on the part of early Americans to introduce the light of Christ into Yule, a celebration that was previously devoid of any religious roots. Even the date, December 25, coincides with the end of Yule.
Immigrants also brought their unique cuisine to America. Depending on cultural background and location in the USA, people served many different types of foods for Christmas dinner, including roast goose, kielbasa and cabbage and even tamales. However, it was the European preference for ham and cranberry sauce that stuck. Turkey has been served at Thanksgiving since US beginnings (because it was widely available in the wild), and has made its way onto the Christmas table.
Fusion festivities in South Korea
Christmas (Sung Tan Jul) celebrations are relatively new in this East Asian country whose state religion is Buddhism. The Christian population took a quantum leap from one per cent in the last century, to about 30 per cent in 2010. Catholics form the majority followed by Protestants.
Greater focus is placed on the spiritual part of the season, although commercialism has flourished notably in the past two decades. Festivities have developed around Western Christian influence. Seasonal products on store shelves and Christmas decor is up as early as November. Shopping and the presence of Santa (Santa Haraboji or Grandpa Santa) and Christmas trees are increasingly ubiquitous.
Yoido Full Gospel Church and Onnuri (All Nations) Community Church are two of the world’s largest congregations, according to Leadership Network (leadnet.org). Churches hold Christmas productions, and conduct special services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Caroling is popular with the younger generations.
Gift giving is typically one gift (usually money) for a relative or close friend, not a stack of gifts like we do in the West. Due to its proximity to year end, South Koreans favour gift giving during New Year over Christmas.
Asked what she remembered from Christmas in South Korea, Vancouver resident Bosung recalled her father bringing home a Christmas cake for the family Christmas Day gathering. The cake was topped with a Santa or Christmas tree decoration and greeting. It’s the only day in the year she savoured a Western-style cake.
Christmas Day is a public holiday, but not a major one on the South Korean calendar. It is also deemed a “couples” holiday with restaurants, hotels and local attractions offering romantic packages.
Simple Croatian traditions
Christian traditions run deep on the sun-soaked Dalmatian Coast where over 86 per cent of the population are Catholic. Although no state religion exists, Christian celebrations are rooted in the Croatian culture.
Public Christian festivities were banned in the former Yugoslav Republic after WWII, but reinstated when the communist regime ended in 1990. Under communist rule, however, Christians were allowed to attend church services, says Vancouver-based Croatian language instructor, Ivanka Culjak.
Christmas preparation typically begins on Advent Sunday. As a child, Culjak remembers washing her boots and putting them on the window sill the night before St. Nicholas Day (on Dec. 6). She and the other children couldn’t wait till dawn to check their boots for treats. “It’s not much, usually walnuts, candies and chocolates. We don’t get anything on Christmas day,” recalls Culjak. On Christmas Eve (Badnji Dan), the head of the household customarily ignites a log and keeps it burning through Christmas Day. Wheat shoots grown from groats planted in a small dish of soil or water on St. Lucia Day are trimmed and tied with Croatian coloured ribbons of red, white and blue – and used as a table décor. The candle placed in the middle of the bundled shoots is lit and a prayer is said before dinner, shares Culjak. “We would get a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, not before. I loved decorating the tree. My mom was always busy preparing food on the 24th,” she remembers. “We baked cookies. We fasted, eating very light, fat-and-meat-free meals, and drinking water.”
Culjak was amazed how disciplined everyone was despite the wonderful cooking smell wafting around the home. Growing up in the interior, a break-the-fast meal for Culjak included bean salad, sauerkraut and potato salad. Dried codfish (bakalar) is traditionally served in coastal households.
She shares how excited she was going to Midnight Mass, staying up to visit family and friends, eating, socializing, laughing and singing carols. “It was very warm with good food, joy and laughter, even though it was cold outside,” Culjak remembers.